Jennifer Lane-Riefler, Executive Director of Cancer Services of Grant County, is retiring the day of this year’s Walk of Hope, May 6.
From the day Lane-Riefler began working at Cancer Services, she had a goal: to reach 5,000 participants.
Each year, participants donate $5, “cheaper than a cup of coffee,” Lane-Riefler said, to participate physically or virtually in the fundraiser. Those who have lost loved ones to cancer can register their loved one as an “angel” for an additional $5.
Lane-Riefler herself has a team each year, “Jennifer’s angels,” made up of family members, loved ones and clients whom she has lost to cancer.
“This year, my team is ‘Jennifer’s 5,000,’” she said.
Lane-Riefler said she is retiring “with a smile on (her) face,” proud of the work she has done over the last 23 years, and confident that her successor, Rocky Whitehead, will carry on her legacy.
When Lane-Riefler joined Cancer Services in 1999, she said she was told that the organization was at risk of closing down. With outdated equipment and little funding, Lane-Riefler said the place was “lifeless.”
“Anyone who knows me knows that I am very far from a lifeless person,” Lane-Riefler said. “I breathed some air into it and gutted the place.”
Lane-Riefler quickly began making changes, including introducing a new free mammogram program, widening the types of services offered, and forming connections with other organizations in the community.
“There was nothing like (the free mammogram program) in Grant County. That program has saved a lot of lives,” Lane-Riefler said. “Grant County has the highest rate of cancer in the state. I thought we needed this.”
Lane-Riefler said she received some push back from people when she began throwing out the old equipment.
“My rule is: If I don’t feel comfortable giving something to my own mother, whether it’s a piece of equipment or a wig or a hospital bed, I’m not going to give it to anyone else,” Lane-Riefler said. “People are already humbled when they come and ask for help.”
Lane-Riefler said she tries to treat each client like family, her work being influenced by her childhood experiences.
Growing up, Lane-Riefler had two uncles who battled cancer for years, and an aunt who died of breast cancer when Lane-Riefler was 14 years old. With cousins her age, Lane-Riefler said she remembers feeling empathy for them as they mourned the loss of their mother.
“‘Cancer’ was a common word in my family,” Lane-Riefler said.
When Lane-Riefler was young, most people did not survive cancer, but due to early detection and improved treatment, more people are surviving.
Due to the improving survival rate, Lane-Riefler said the jobs of those at Cancer Services have changed.
“Our jobs have changed from sitting with someone who was dying and maybe giving them a hospital bed, to now we are helping people through the cancer process, helping them reach the other side and say alright I did this,” Lane-Riefler said.
Today, Cancer Services provides an array of services, including equipment, hospital beds, wigs, hats, baby diapers, ostomy supplies, help with transportation, medical bills, setting up health insurance, housing, gift bags for each woman who wakes up after breast surgery at Marion Health and even gives Christmas presents to children, all free of charge.
“We do whatever folks need us to do to make this journey easier on them,” Lane-Riefler said.
Since 1999, Cancer Services went from serving 190 clients to more than 500 each year. The organization has performed 10,000 free mammograms, and diagnosed 66 women with breast cancer, 60 of whom are still alive. Since Lane-Riefler joined, Cancer Services has paid about $700,000 to Marion Health for services.
“We’ve come a long way,” Lane-Riefler said. “I always tell people it was a God thing.”
One of Lane-Riefler biggest achievements was becoming the first community outside of Marion County to receive funding from the Susan G. Komen Foundation.
Lane-Riefler remembered a conversation she had with Michele Wood from the foundation in which Wood asked Lane-Riefler if she knew why Cancer Services received the grant. Wood told Lane-Riefler that they liked her biography included with the grant proposal.
“Part of my bio said, ‘I don’t take no for an answer,’ and I don’t, I never have,” Lane-Riefler said. “If I can’t get something that somebody needs, I am going to look somewhere else. You tell me no, somebody else is going to say yes. I am just going to keep looking until I find the right answer.”
Lane-Riefler said that despite the difficult days, all she has are good memories from her time with Cancer Services.
“When you go to work and have worthwhile work everyday, it makes you fall onto that pillow at night and be grateful,” Lane-Riefler said. “I’m grateful for every minute I’ve had. All of it is good. It’s something to be proud of.”
Ann Devitt, the bookkeeper at Cancer Services said she admires Lane-Riefler’s passion for care and knowledge about cancer.
“Jennifer does not have a job, she has a passion,” Devitt said. “She has true compassion for all of our clients as they walk their journey and will share in it, if they want her to.”
Cancer Services board member Susan Knapp said she credits Lane-Riefler for the growth of the organization over the last 23 years.
“Jennifer has created an immeasurable environment of support and education for residents living and/or working in Grant County,” Knapp said. “She and her staff have walked beside countless patients and families as they face some of the toughest decisions and conversations of their lives. Through her efforts, Jennifer has empowered her staff to work independently in a way that will foster growth within the organization and the Grant County community for years to come.”
In order to fund the free services, Cancer Services hosts three fundraising events each year: the Walk of Hope, a golf scramble and a breast cancer run in the Fall.
For more information and to register for the Walk of Hope, visit grantcountycancer.org.